Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Apples and Honey

I brought apples and honey to Aviva and Noah's school classes last Friday, which was the last day of school before fall break (and thus the last chance to eat apples and honey in school before Rosh Hashana, which started last night).

I just left the apples and honey discreetly on the table in Noah's class, after greeting his teachers. It was morning kindergarten ramp-up time, so kids were milling around and I did not create a stir.

When I came into Aviva's class, though, they were in the middle of circle time and all heads turned.

"I brought something," I announced. (In Swiss-German, obviously.)

The kids jumped up from their seats and crowded around. "Is it Aviva's birthday?" one asked.

"Nope," I said.

"Is it Noah's birthday?" (Aviva reports that she talks about her little brother constantly, so that was their natural next thought.)

"Nope," I said. "It is a birthday... but not of a person..."

Suddenly Lorenz's eyes lit up. "Is it a Jewish holiday?" he said in great excitement.

We had all made dreidels together last Hanukah.

"It's Rosh Hashana!" Aviva announced.

"That's right!" I said. "It is the New Year!"

"It is not," someone said.

"There are different New Years," I said. "When is the Swiss New Year?"

"August first!" someone said.

"Nuh-uh, January first!" Luis said.

"Both right, sort of," I said. "August first is Switzerland's birthday, and January first is the Swiss New Year. And Tuesday evening is both, for the Jews -- the New Year, and the birthday of the world."

"Wowwwwwwwwww", said the crowd of easily impressed second graders.

Then they fell upon the apples and honey in a horde, and devoured them, and licked the paper plate clean.

I seem to be, like, Mr. Diversity for Aviva's class, because (once they are sated on apples and honey) they crowd around me and tell me how they too are different.

"I speak Spanish!"
"I'm from Turkey!"
"My dad is from Russia!"
"I speak Norwegian!"
"I speak French!"
"I speak Arabic!"
"And you speak Tibetan, right Tinley?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.

When I come in, it's like there's permission not to be Swiss.

L'Shana Tovah, everyone. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and very sweet year.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Knees Tag

I have a suspicion that, much as the proper kinds of laziness, impatience and hubris are virtues in a programmer, so too the proper kinds of laziness, impatience, and selfishness are virtues in a parent.

Or that's what I tell myself, anyway.

Some parents may insist that their children dress and feed themselves out of a dutiful, considered commitment to nurturing their young ones' independence. I do it because I am damned if I am going to get out of my chair to pour yet another bowl of corn flakes (it is all corn flakes all the time around here lately -- or would be, if the kids had their way. Oh, the haggling over how many teaspoons of sugar!)

Similarly, many parents force themselves to play whatever games their kids want to play. You may hate Candyland, goes the theory, but if the little dears are obsessed with it, then it is probably developmentally critical for them to rehearse those card-drawing and figurine-advancing skills, and you should endure hours of Candyland-based togetherness with a happy smile.

Not me. I am unwilling to have pretend fun with my kids. If we are going to play something, then it's going have to be fun for me too. And I don't mean it would be fun for me if I were more enlightened, easygoing, and wise. No, I mean fun for the actual me: fiercely competitive, intellectually demanding, rules-lawyering, irritated by luck, and allergic to bad game design.

I like to think, though, that in this case selfishness is a virtue, because the result of it is that I love playing with my kids. I can't wait to go out and play with them. Now, we do spend an awful lot of time negotiating, tinkering with the rules, trying to figure out how to make it fun for everyone. Sometimes these negotiations break down into temper tantrums, it is true. Sometimes it is even the kids having the temper tantrums. I have also gone overboard at times and discovered that they were just humoring me (which isn't the point either). But all in all I think it's worth it. I think there's something very satisfying to kids in playing with an adult who is having as much fun as they are.

So as the kids grow up and their interests vary and we get bored with things, our game time becomes a constant exercise in the design of new games -- in particular, new ways to balance the playing field so that we are evenly matched.

Today we came up with two new games. One involved pillow figthing on the bed in which I had to be flat on my back, fighting upward. The other one was Knees Tag.

Knees Tag
You will need:
Some adults and some children. A large open space. The players may be on foot, or wearing rollerblades.

The game is a variation on Freeze Tag. All adults are on one team and all children are on the other team. Everyone is simultaneously "it".

If a child tags an adult, the adult is frozen in place until freed by another adult, or a child overcome with sympathy for their plight.

A child can be similarly frozen but only if tagged by an adult on the front of the child's knee (for instance, on the knee pad of a rollerblading child wearing knee pads), and is similarly liberated.

Note that, since everyone is simultaneously "it", this means adults must tag the children's knees while avoiding getting tagged themselves.

I played this all afternoon against Aviva and Noah. It would have helped to have another adult, though they were very generous about unfreezing me.

It is very challenging, running backwards while avoiding being tagged while trying to tag the knee pad of a seven-year old who is rollerblading rapidly toward you.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Buzz for the Ant King (and other things)

On The Ant King and other stories colllection:

And in other writing news:

  • My and David Ackert's story "Stray" is coming out in German translation in Shayol's Pandora. This is the first time I've ever had a story translated into the language I work in at my day job!
  • Fast Forward 2, containing Cory's and my novella "True Names", is coming out in a couple of weeks!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Maurice Sendak is my spiritual leader

Tuesday mornings, Aviva's second grade class is doing state-sponsored religious instruction. Some places it comes in multiple flavors (Catholic and Zwinglian Protestant, and it's possible that in some schools in Kanton Basel-Stadt or Zürich, Jewish might even be on the menu?) In Kanton Basel-Land it's only offered in vaguely-ecumenical-Christian flavor.

It's optional if you're not feeling it -- though there isn't any organized alternative at that hour other than sitting in the playground. Aviva tried the class out in the beginning of last year, and found it okay, but pretty soon it got to be a little too much Jesus for her and she asked us if she could drop out.

So for about a year now, I stay home Tuesday mornings (in what would otherwise be writing time) to teach religion class to Aviva and Noah.

It's awesome.

They love it, I love it. Some mornings we don't get it together, in terms of getting dressed, eating breakfast, washing the dishes, brushing hair and teeth, and so on, enough to do more than ten minutes or so. But sometimes we speed our way through all that stuff so we can go up to the attic and spend our time doing the Jewish thing.

In a Jewish context, of course, "religion class" covers a broader range than it would for Christians in a Christian country. We could be atheists and still have almost as packed an agenda, since what I'm really teaching is an entire culture -- one of the longest-surviving integral distributed subcultures in the world, one so old the classical Romans marvelled at its antiquity, and at the same time one which is, in every generation, fought about, reimagined, and reinvented.

For a while there I was mostly teaching the Hebrew alphabet, but now that Migvan (the liberal congregation I found about a year ago and am now, to my great amusement, running) is offering weekly Hebrew school, we are able to venture more into the historical, liturgical and theological. Since it's now the run-up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we spent most of our half hour this morning preparing for what it was going to be like in Rosh Hashana services.

Or that was my plan, anyway. Actually we spent practically the entire time on one song, Hashivenu, which has only seven words in it. It's a ravishingly beautiful song, probably my favorite in the High Holiday liturgy.

First we learned to sing it; then we read it and talked about it so we could learn to mean it when we sung it. The song says "turn us back, Adonai, to you, and we'll come back; make our days new like they were at the beginning."

It turns out that the best gloss on this song is the story of Pierre. You remember -- there once was a boy named Pierre, who only would say "I don't care."?

Teshuvah -- return, turning back -- is what happens to Pierre in the lion's belly. He's poured syrup in his hair, sat backwards on his chair, driven his parents from the house in exasperated resignation at his maniacal, implacable indifference, and allowed himself to be eaten by an extremely polite and solicitous lion. It is fair to say his day is not going well.

But once the doctor turns the lion over and shakes Pierre out, Pierre's attitude has shifted. He is glad to be back with his family, he is ready to engage with and treasure life. What happened? Clearly (in one of Sendak's typical acts of genius) the most powerful moment of the story is elided, offstage.

Pierre wants to go back. He wants to return to the moment when the day began -- when his mother woke him up with "good morning, darling boy, you are my only joy." Now that is a promising beginning to the day. Pierre reflects, in the darkness of the lion's interior, that he would like to return to it. He has screwed the day up, with his endless "I don't care". If he could get out of the lion, he would do things differently. He would like to roll the day back. He knows what he could do differently now.

But he cannot get out of the lion by himself. He needs not only good will, but luck. He needs someone to turn the lion over, to turn the day back to its beginning, to "you are my only joy".

Bring me back, Pierre says, and I will come back. Set the day back to the way it was before I screwed everything up, and this time, I will care.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

On being consolatory

"Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape" -- Michael Moorcock (as quoted by China Mieville)

The problem with consolatory, or escapist, fiction is that by allowing people to experience an imagined, vicarious escape from the problems of the real world, it dulls their need for more permanent solutions to those problems.

This is also true of massage therapy. By not addressing the root social causes of lower back pain -- stress caused ultimately by injustice, an economic system which inevitably produces bad office chairs, etc. -- massage merely postpones fundamental answers to these issues. Clearly, people with sore backs would be more motivated to changes to society, and more able to think clearly about them.


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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Protecting Gender

I was going to post something on this study of gender differences in personality and how they are greater in cultures with more gender equity, and observe how it's interesting to me that the article, after arguing that the research results foil both traditional evolutionary-biological and social-psychological predictions, goes on to then suggest a more complex evolutionary-biological explanation... but ignores the fact that there's an obvious more complex social psychological explanation as well.

But David Moles pretty much beat me to it.

However I will state the explanation that occurs to me in somewhat stronger terms than he did:

Performance of gender is, in all of today's human societies, critical to social success and to psychological identity. It's mostly invisible to us -- unless we're trans- or intersex -- just how much energy we put into it. Along with securing other resources, social status, etc., it's critical that we establish ourselves, not just as men and women, but as real and proper men and women.

If you are in a society with strictly segregated gender roles anyway, it follows naturally that this is going to take fewer resources. If you want to claim femininity, you are going to have to work harder at it if you're the chairman of the board in a society with less officially enforced gender roles, than if you are wearing a hijab and in purdah.

In fact, like many if not most "nature vs. nurture" debates, this one may be somewhat specious, because genes and memes are not lined up cleanly as mutually exclusive potential actors on opposite sides, but are crazily and unpredictably intertwined in producing the complex emergent machinery of us. If your culture is doing less official enforcement of gender, and you are thus having difficulty distinguishing yourself as a Real Man... and you are under pressure from a wide variety of phenotypic forces to therefore be more manly... and so being forced to occupy more peacock's-tail-handicapped personality extremes of masculinity... it may well be one of those cases where pointing to the process and asking "but is it genes or culture doing that?" is just not a well-posed question.

Twitch your mouse. Do you see the little arrow cursor move? Now, was it the hardware or the software doing that?

OK, was it more the hardware, or more the software?

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ant King, Up From the Depths with a Giant Cockroach Loaded Down With Riches (Links, Free Downloads, and a Contest)


  • should now take you to my publisher's site for The Ant King and Other Stories. Yay!
  • The entire collection is now under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license and you can download it here in a variety of formats.
  • If you produce any new formats, let me know and I'll try and have Small Beer post them on that page.
  • You can remix it, and create derivative works. In fact let us have a little contest:
    Contest Rules
    1. Create a derivative work of any story in The Ant King and Other Stories
    2. Place it under the same license (you do this just by including a declaration to that effect on the work in its published form)
    3. Post a link to the work (or some kind of recording or representation of the work, like a youtube video if it's a live performance, or a picture of it if it's, like, a vase or something) in the comments to this blog entry.
    4. Derivative works can be translations, plays, movies, radio plays, audiobooks, flashmob happenings, horticultural installations, visual artworks, slash fanfic epics, robot operas, sequels, webcomics, ASCII art, text adventure games, roleplaying campaigns, knitting projects, handmade shoes, or anything else you feel like.
    5. On March 3, 2009 (that gives you six months), I will send signed (and extensively doodled-upon) hardcover copies of The Ant King and Other Stories to the creators of the three derivative works that I like the best.
    6. Obviously, other than what's covered in the CC license, you retain all rights to your works, so if you've made, you know, House-Beyond-Your-Sky-themed coasters, you get to sell them or put drinks on them to keep rings off your coffee table or whatever. And if you want to actually sell the rights to reproduce the derivative work commercially, I will in all probability tell you that you can, unless you're, like, a Hollywood studio. :-)
    Sound good?

  • At some point I'll do something a little fancier with the URL, but I don't want to get too distracted from Resilience at the moment... I'm having a return to productivity since Worldcon (thanks to all the stimulating conversations I had with all the wonderful people whom I have as usual completely failed to acknowledge in any kind of con report), and I don't want to get derailed...!

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